Why Do I Have Tight Muscles in My Legs And How Do I Ease It?
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You’re in the middle of your training session and your client’s leg muscles tighten up. Or maybe they’ve skipped their workout altogether. The tightness in their legs was just too much. Getting to the root cause of your client’s leg muscle tension is critical to getting (and keeping) them in the gym. Easing the tightness is the next step. Let’s start with some of the reasons people experience tight leg muscles.
Common Causes of Leg Muscle Tightness
There is no one universal cause of tight muscles in the upper or lower leg. Instead, there are many situations that can make the muscles in this area tense. Among them are:
- Lack of movement. Have you ever noticed stiffness in your legs after sitting for an extended period? Lack of movement can cause the muscle to tense. This leads to soreness when you begin to move again. Stay in one position too long and you may feel actual pain when getting on your feet.
- Overtraining or overuse. Tight muscle in the legs can also occur due to overtraining. When you work your quads, hamstrings, or any other muscle in the leg, the muscle fibers contract. Work them too hard and they may not release. This leads to muscle stiffness and pain.
- Dehydration. Muscle needs water to function effectively. So, if you are dehydrated, it may not respond optimally. This is why some elite athletes deal with muscle cramps or have a muscle spasm mid-game. They may not have taken the time to rehydrate, causing tightness in their leg muscles.
- Tightness in other areas of the body. Tightness felt in the legs doesn’t necessarily mean that is where the issue begins. Sometimes, the tension originates in another area, such as muscles in the lumbar spine. This tension can cause you to modify your posture, creating tightness in your lower body as well.
- Accident or injury. In some cases, muscle tightness in the leg is a result of an accident or injury. It is a result of trauma or some type of other stressor. This could be a car accident, a slip and fall, or a sports-related event that ended in injury and, subsequently, tightness and pain.
- Certain medications. A few prescription medications have muscle tightness as a side effect. Statin drugs—which are prescribed to help lower cholesterol—are one. In fact, the Mayo Clinic reports that 30 percent of statin users stop taking this category of drug because of muscle pain.
What Happens When the Tightness Isn’t Relieved
A tight muscle in the leg every now and again isn’t likely a cause for concern. But if that tightness occurs often or is persistent, it can create quite a few issues. This includes:
- Muscle pain. Sore muscles are one thing. Pain in the muscle is another. If the tightness goes on too long or is severe, it can cause actual pain. This makes it harder to work out, stopping clients from reaching fitness goals.
- Muscle stiffness. When your leg muscles are continuously stiff, simple actions like walking and standing create discomfort. Muscle stiffness also makes other actions less appealing, like playing with your kids or taking care of your household chores.
- Muscle weakness. A chronically tight leg muscle isn’t as strong as a healthy muscle that functions as it should. This weakness means reduced sports performance. Reduced muscle strength also means less effective workouts.
- Muscle imbalance. If your right leg muscle is constantly tightening, it could create a muscle imbalance. This imbalance could occur because of postural shifts to help relieve the tension. It could also be created by not working that muscle as hard because of its stiffness.
Exercises to Ease Muscle Stiffness in Your Quadriceps
If the stiffness and tightness is in the quadriceps, there are quite a few exercises you can do to relax this particular muscle.
The first is a standing quad stretch. This involves standing on one leg and lifting the foot of the other leg behind you. Grab your ankle and slowly push the heel of your foot toward your butt. Hold this position to elongate the quadriceps. If balance is an issue, use a chair or the wall to help steady yourself.
A lying quad stretch works too. The basic movement is the same as the standing quad stretch. The only difference is, instead of being on your feet, you’re lying on your side. If you prefer this position, the leg closest to the ground is straight and the quad you are stretching is on top.
A kneeling quad stretch is like a lunge except you’re on one knee. To do it, kneel on the knee of the leg with the tight quadricep. The other knee should be in front of you, bent at a 90-degree angle. Keeping your upper body upright, lean forward until you feel stretching in your quad. Hold this position to help elongate the muscle.
Stretches to Reduce Tightness in Your Hamstring
What do you do if the tightness is in the hamstrings instead?
One hamstring stretch that helps reduce pain and stiffness is a lying hamstring stretch. This movement involves lying on your back and lifting the leg with the tight muscle in the air as much as you can. Also keep the extended leg as straight as you can. Use a resistance band or even the wall if you need help getting your leg to fully extend.
You can also do a sitting hamstring stretch. It is the same principle as the lying stretch except you do it in a sitting position. Slowly bend forward at the hip and reach for your feet. If it is too uncomfortable having both legs outstretched, bend one knee and place that foot against the inner thigh of your other leg.
A standing hamstring stretch is a great stretch for runners because you can do it right before you hit the track or trail. To do it, stand with one heel rested against the ground, your toes pointed toward the sky. Place your hands on that leg’s knee and bend forward at the hip. You should feel it in your hamstring muscle.
Movements to Relieve a Sore Calf Muscle
Calf muscles can get tight as well. This creates problems with walking, running, going up stairs, and more.
A wall calf stretch can release this tension. To do it, stand with one foot approximately 12 inches from a wall, the other foot should be 1-2 feet further back. Keep your back leg straight and lean into the wall. Hold this position.
A towel stretch is another alternative. This involves sitting on the floor with your legs extended in front of you. Place a towel behind the balls of your feet and pull back. Hold this position and let your calf muscles stretch and relax.
If you have access to a stair or step, you can also do a heel drop. Place the balls of your feet on the step and let your heels drop down. This move enlists gravity to help stretch your calves.
Additional Methods to Effectively Relax Tense Muscle
Other options exist for reducing muscle soreness and tension beyond exercise and stretching.
If the tightness is due to a grueling exercise session, research shows that massage can help. It works by increasing blood flow to the affected area. In one study, 10 subjects received a 10-minute massage three hours after their workout. This decreased their muscle soreness by 30 percent. It also reduced any related swelling.
Another option is foam rolling. Running the foam roller down the legs can help ease stiff muscle. It works by releasing the fascia. This reduces stiffness and tension in the muscle.
Yoga also helps ease tight leg muscles. Two of the best yoga postures for tight hamstrings include downward facing dog and seated forward bend. Performing these poses regularly can help keep these leg muscles from tightening up.
Why Do I Have Tight Muscles Elsewhere in My Body?
Muscle tightness isn’t just experienced in the legs. Sometimes it is felt in the back muscles. Other times it is in the upper body, such as in the arm or chest muscles.
Some of the causes may be the same. Lack of movement, overtraining, and accident or injury can all lead to tight muscles. The key is to get at the root cause so you can develop an effective plan to reduce the tension and pain.
If you’ve tried stretches, massage, foam rolling, or other techniques and the muscles won’t relax, additional health professionals should be consulted. A physical therapist may be able to achieve some type of relief. If physical therapy doesn’t work, a doctor’s visit may be necessary to get to the root cause. Once the cause is identified, a treatment plan can be created.
It’s also possible that a movement dysfunction may be to blame. The ISSA’s Corrective Exercise certification course covers how this type of issue can lead to low back or knee pain. It also teaches you how to help clients overcome these issues with a corrective exercise regimen.
Corrective Exercise Specialist
The ISSA's Corrective Exercise Course will help you learn how to identify and correct the most common movement dysfunctions that you are likely to see in a wide range of clients, from the weekend warrior to the serious athlete. Both health care professionals and certified personal trainers can benefit from this distance education course, learning more about how people move incorrectly and how to guide them to correct those dysfunctions.
Please note: The information provided in this course is for general educational purposes only. The material is not a substitute for consultation with a healthcare provider regarding particular medical conditions and needs.